Why it’s time to decolonise the museum

By Toyin Agbetu | Mon 16 April 2018

Looted Ethiopian artefacts exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Toyin Agbetu breakdown some of the moral issues surrounding ownership rights faced by those working to decolonise the museum.


For many Africans across the world, the opening scenes of the recent Black Panther movie touched a raw but powerful nerve. In it, the protagonist decides to forcibly relieve a famous British museum of some of its plundered African artefacts.

Outside the Marvel cinematic universe, the discussion calling for the return of Britain’s looted artefacts was reignited following a recent exhibition of Ethiopian artefacts showcasing at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The items on display were originally plundered by British soldiers following the Battle of Maqdala in 1868.

Now this is an issue of long standing, most recently, revitalised by the efforts of the Ethiopian government who in 2006, petitioned the British Queen to repatriate the 150 year old remains of Prince Alemayehu.

The prince was seven years old when abducted by the British soldiers on behalf of Queen Victoria.

Sadly, the Ethiopian president’s request for Prince Alemayehu’s remains to be exhumed was rejected by the current UK monarch. Her representative used the excuse that “identifying the remains of young Prince Alemayehu would not be possible”. This was despite the government having access to DNA technology that could prove otherwise.

Today, the V&A museum’s director is considering a long-term ‘loan’ of the Maqdala artefacts to their rightful owners - the people of Ethiopia. Now, it would be nice to credit Hunt for having the moral vision to at least consider a progressive proposal but his comments are almost certainly a competitive response to the widely reported comments of the French president, Emmanuel Macron. During November 2017, whilst in Burkina Faso, Macron said;

“I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France… African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums… In the next five years, I want the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”

Macron’s statement if sincere, reveals strong moral character.

Hunt’s whilst currently unbacked by action, seems to be empty politricking.

Hundreds of items were stolen by the British in 1868, however whilst some such as a gold crown and royal wedding dress reside at the V&A there are also many held by the British museum with great spiritual and religious significance. Neither institution has demonstrated the moral integrity requires to start the process of reparation.

Toyin Agbetu speaking with Sophie Ikenye on BBC Focus on Africa

#Decolonise The Museums

And this is why we need an international movement dedicated to the decolonisation of museums. Even if we put the moral issues of theft, racism and gross cultural misappropriation to one side, on the lowest level, any institution that continues to exhibit stolen ethnographic items, publish false narratives and maintain idolatry ideologies of global ‘white’ supremacy is abusing its audiences by making them both recipients and enabling participants of a criminal endeavour.

- We need to be decolonising museums resistant to recognising the ownership of looted artefacts by the communities they claim to be representing.

- We need to be decolonising museums in order to challenge their stranglehold on the physical objects of history which are utilised as a static repository for the maintenance of ‘white’ power.

- We need to be decolonising museums unable or unwilling to share any artefacts they possess capable of rendering history tangible in a manner that can educate and indeed liberate all.

Instead, too many of us turn a blind eye to the immoral culture that permeates many of Britain’s supercilious museums by allowing them to masquerade as shrines of political and spiritual activity through our endorsement of their activities of consumerist passivity.

Now, let me start by stating that I have less issue with the few museums who through partnership working with communities (not just nation states) and a willingness to acknowledge the looted status of some of their object collections, reach repatriation and reciprocal loan agreements.

But it’s interesting how whilst some museums are now starting to recognise their responsibility to repatriate human remains, they do not want to do the same with the artefacts they illegally hold in their possession.

Possessing a stolen item does not make someone its legitimate owner, they simply possess it… illegally.

And because they do not own it, they can either maintain (or transfer) possession of it, or return it to its rightful owner (or descendent) - but never do they ever have the moral authority to legitimately loan it.

Let me give you an example, it’s like the millions of people oppressed during Maafa by non-African nations.

During Trans-Saharan enslavement, Trans-Atlantic enslavement and colonial enslavement, millions of African people were forcibly captured (kidnapped), transported (trafficked), oppressed (raped, brutalised, enslaved, murdered) and exploited (physically and commercially).

The bodies of some of my Ancestors are still held in museums across Europe and the US.

But despite the efforts of these Maafa criminals to racialise and dehumanise their victims, African people were never the property of so called –‘slave owners’ or ‘colonial masters’.

As a parent I do not even ‘own’ my children, I am merely their custodian/guardian. A sentient being cannot be owned despite the fact that even today there are some sick individuals who speak about humans being ‘illegal’.

No-one is ever born a slave or property, they are always born free into the world until someone or something (a system of) evil enslaves or exploits them.

This extends to the belongings and possessions of all those that are oppressed. Contrary to the Afriphobic populist view of Empire - might does not equate to right.

In fact there is a wise saying, the passage of time does not lessen the crime (thank you EPJ).

Likewise, justice always remains a possibility for as long as we never forget the Truth and continue to resist those that would maintain lies.




External Links
Looted Ethiopian treasures in UK could be returned on loan
Ethiopians urge Britain to return bones of ‘stolen’ prince after 150 years
Emmanuel Macron Says Return of African Artifacts Is a Top Priority
The Gweagal shield and the fight to change the British Museums attitude to seized artefacts
The museum will not be decolonised

Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites

The Walk (2007) - Documentary
BBC Focus on Africa (10 April 2018) - Should looted Ethiopian treasures be returned

Speak Out!

Is the policy of ‘long-term’ and ‘permanent’ loans the best route to repatriation of looted artefacts from plundering museums? Would it be dishonourable to accept them on those terms?
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Even if we put the moral issues of theft, racism and gross cultural misappropriation to one side, any institution that continues to exhibit stolen ethnographic items is abusing its audiences by making them enabling participants of a criminal endeavour.

Toyin Agbetu, Ligali

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